Thursday, August 9, 2007

How to Bake a Book

If you had asked me an hour ago--me, the author of 17 novels--"What's a subplot?" I'd have told you and I'd have been sure of my answer. And I'd have been wrong, as I just learned 59 minutes ago. According to one of my favorite writing gurus, Donald Maass, "Subplots are plot lines given to different characters; layers are plot lines given to the same character."

Layer cakes and cupcakes, in other words.

This makes so much sense! Why haven't I ever known this before?

Well, who cares why, or even that I didn't, because now I do, and it makes marbles tumble into slots for me, if you'll pardon the mixed metaphors. A Marble Cake? lol. I'm excited about how I'm going to spend my morning thinking about layers and subplots.

Today is a day for what the Buddhists (bless them for their useful terminology!) call "Beginner's Mind," a state I'd like to maintain forever.

May you, too, be surprised and blessed today by learning something that you thought you already knew.


olivia said...

Morning Nancy.

I'm still thinking about chocolate cake from yesterday ... :)

Family Man said...

Good morning Nancy and Olivia.

OK you've got different layers with the cake, but how would ice cream cake play into that? :)

Nancy P said...

Olivia, lol! And that special crunch.

Ice cream cake, fm. . .oh, this is going to be a hard day for dieters. :)

GreenMinute said...

Oh Nancy, I love workable definitions. Thanks for these ones!

I thought subplots were underwater.

Or underwear.

Fam Man asked: you've got different layers with the cake, but how would ice cream cake play into that?

Exceptionally well, I think. :)

Group Question: Neapolitan ice cream. Do we all eat one flavor at a time?

Hmmm. Oh, I think I do mix along Spumoni in the same spoon.

Nancy P said...

Spumoni, ew!!

I definitely eat Neopolitan one flavor at a time. Actually, what I do is eat the chocolate and leave the rest.

And, yeah, green! Aren't definitions like those just the most helpful things?! Trying to write a novel or short story is such a loosey-goosey endeavor. Anything--or anybody--who can help nail down the jello is my friend.

olivia said...

Don't eat neopolitan ... I'm a chocolate lover, so I'd be wasting 2/3 and you just can't waste ice cream ... :)

olivia said...

Although coffee ice cream is just a smidgen higer than chocolate on the fav list.

olivia said...

higher even ... :)

AndiF said...

Let you all eat cake -- I stuck on Beginners Mind with an image of an occipital lobe with training wheels being pushed off by a cerebellum going "Don't worry -- I promise you won't fall."

Nancy P said...

I'm addicted to Dannon coffee yogurt, Olivia. And to coffee, of course. :)

GreenMinute said...

As a reader, Subplots for me are those wonderful bits to be resolved after the main plot is confronted and settled in the Climax.

Meanwhile, if subplots (those of other characters) actively involve the main character... (but are shown from the "other characters'" POVs) and I think this is the case in many stories... what do we call all that?

I'm too stupid to figure anay of this out. But it seems to me that subplot refers directly to first having a main plot. And other plots are simply subordinate to that.

In something along the lines of a Hiaasen novel, it seems that equal characters have individual plots. Co-plots? When he brings them together, I'm not sure which is the main plot.

As a reader, I know there is one plot I personally care more about the others. This isn't always the one the writer pays the most space or attention to. The reader's main plot may differe from the author's main plot.

But that's as a reader. Literary definitions in general I have found are descriptive rather than prescriptive. So I don't have the slightest idea what to call anything as a writer of it and I happily defer to Maass and Pickard.

In Italo Calvino, Nancy, sometimes the idea or concept is the plot, rather than the action. I mean, I believe ideas can be plots if they are developed and extended? In which case all story-action plot is subplot.

God, I just read through is and now I know why people hate me. I am truly am Lost at Sea when it comes to this stuff. I apologize to anybody who thought I might be going to make sense. Sorry.

I should have just said dunno.

GreenMinute said...

Here's what I like about Maass:

In reading him, I am persistenlty assailed by the notion that he is writing down what I have always known, except that I never thought of it before.

Nancy P said...

lol, green. Well, I love you, and "I dunno" is my fav answer to everything.

Here's an example Maass uses of layers as opposed to subplot:

The book is Mystic River by Dennis LeHane.

". . .In the story, Boston detective Sean Devine's two boyhood friends Jimmy Marcus and Dave Boyle both have subplots: Jimmy struggles with the murder of his teenage daughter and his belief that Dave killed her; Dave struggles to suppress the homicidal urges of The Boy, an alter ego that surfaced in him following his abduction by child molesters years earlier.. . What gives the novel its resonance, though, are Sean's own three plot layers: (1) He is the lead detective in the investigation of the murder of Katie Marcus, and, although he owes his childhood friend JHImmy his utmost efforts, he struggles against a debilitating emotional numbess, (2) His wife has left him, taking along with her the baby daughter who may or may not be Sean's, and he doesn't know how to get her back. (3) Because the case reconnmects him with Jimmy and Dave, Sean must with them face again what happened to them all one afternoon as they argued about whether or not to steal a car, etc."

What I notice in EACH of those is that whether layer or subplot, there is obstacle and struggle. (This is from his fabulous workbook called Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.)

Nancy P said...

Great comment about Maas, greenminute. He makes things "click" for me.

Nancy P said...

andi, lol! So that's what people mean when they say, "I can almost see the wheels turning."

FARfetched said...

Hooray, resolution! I love the comment about nailing down the jello. Technical writing isn't that much less loosey-goosey than fiction… you end up making up stuff sometimes there too. :-P

Beginner's Mind is not difficult today, as I learn something (Quark) that I *don't* know!

Oh, and neapolitan? I eat the chocolate & vanilla together, leaving the strawberry for someone else. Unless it's real strawberry, then I'll eat it separately.

Nancy P said...

G'morning, far. Good luck with those training wheels on your occipital lobe today!

Family Man said...

Hey Green I've read books before that you think the cake (subplots) are are going a certain way and then you find ice cream in the cake. A twist perhaps on a minor character that boosts them to the forefront.

I haven't had Neapolitan ice cream in ages. Not that big a strawberry fan. Actually I haven't had ice cream in a little while. I'm going to have to remedy that. :)

Nancy P said...

Saint Olivia just solved a continuing frustration for me. Now I can make paragraphs (in front page posts)any time I want to and nobody can stop me!!
Thank you, O. xxoo

Nancy P said...

Anybody around? I'm finally back on line. The electrical storm last night fuzzled up my wireless router. After two hours on the phone with Time-Warner--almost all of that on "hold," I'm back, yay. They are so great once I get them, it's just the "getting" that takes so much time.

I hope everybody's having a COOL evening.

boran2 said...

What, no cheesecake? But then I suppose that you'd have to give up all those delicious layers of subplot. Right now I've gone back to Otherland 3 after finishing Deathly Hallows. There are perhaps a few too many plot lines. I'm getting a bit tired of shifting back and forth.

Nancy P said...

Hi, boran2. Man, it's a delicate balance in a novel, isn't it? Too few plotlines and booorrring; too many and also boring, in a different way. I hope the one you're reading improves.

boran2 said...

It must be especially difficult in a 4 volume series, as this one is. But the author, Tad Williams has added new lines well after the story was under way. I'm on the 3rd one, but I'm getting frustrated with it, especially after HP, a 760 page book that I couldn't put down. Now I'm deciding if I want to go any further with it.

Nancy P said...

J.K. Rowling is a tough act to follow.

Anonymous said...

Just a quickie, for anyone who's still up. I'm in Central time now, so I've caught up with most of you. And now I'm craving chocolate ice cream (ditto olivia, neopolitan means using up calories that could be better used eating chocolate)...

I'll update my blog tomorrow - it's late, and I'm borrowing a VERY low signal from some generous person in my friend's apartment building, so don't think I could upload pictures.

Beginner's mind - I like it, especially since that's where I live these days. And thanks for the lessons/discussion on layers and subplots - I love learning from all of you. Don DOES have a way of explaining things that makes them so clear, doesn't he?

I'll have to read through all of your posts when I'm awake. Staying in Minneapolis tomorrow - a nice break from driving. Back on the road Saturday.

Night everyone - I miss being a part of the discussions!! Thanks for your mail, and for thinking of me out on the road.